From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1952 –
Stars for Molly’s Tree
by Olive W. Burt
Gay, absorbed in thoughts of her Christmas plans, was only half aware of the people crowded into the swaying bus, until two small hands, blindly seeking anchorage, clutched at the soft fur of her coat. Instinctively, Gay reached down to remove the hands, and then she paused as her eyes encountered two wide, serious brown eyes looking up at her. The child, however, sensing Gay’s purpose, let go of the coat and grabbed at two gray tweed legs that pressed close against her in the crowded bus.
Gay came out of her reverie then and her eyes moved up, past the little girl’s head, to a lean brown face above broad shoulders that swayed precariously, as one arm reached upward to the strap and the other encircled a heavy, sleeping little boy.
Gay had to smile, and just then the brown eyes in the lean face looked down at her.
Gay forgot her threatened coat and her Christmas plans, as an instinct she didn’t know she possessed spoke, “Let me hold him for you.”
The tall man smiled – a wide, friendly smile, but Gay thought the corners of his mouth looked tired, and there was sadness in the dark eyes.
“You are very kind,” he said simply, and placed the little boy in her lap. then his freed hand took hold of the little girl’s, and he said gaily, ‘now we’re okay, Molly!”
The little fellow snuggled against the softness of Gay’s coat, and one fat hand buried itself in the expensive fur. Gay paid no attention to the clutching fingers, her arms held him tenderly. It was amazing, she thought suddenly, how a child fits into one’s arms.
The tall stranger leaned down. ‘I took them to see Santa Claus,” he explained, “and I guess they got pretty tired. But,” a grim note came into the pleasant voice, “I wanted them to have everything that goes with Christmas this year!”
Gay nodded. She understood that – with the threats to call fathers into service, it might be his last Christmas with them. The thought sent a shiver up Gay’s spine. But it was rather wonderful to look ahead and plan in the face of such uncertainty.
Gay glanced down at Molly. Two brown pigtails stood out from under the little pointed bonnet. Her cheeks were clear and rosy. They must have a wonderful mother, too, to keep them so pink and healthy. But where was she now? Probably home getting their dinner. They wold be the kind to co-operate like that.
“I couldn’t find any stars,”Molly said seriously. “I looked and looked.”
“That’s too bad,” Gay answered, but she smiled brightly at the little girl. “You can make your own stars, you know – prettier than those in the stores.”
“Can you?” asked Molly. “Then Daddy will help me make some.”
As the bus neared the stop two blocks from Gay’s own, the father leaned down toward her.
“I’ll take him now,” he said. “I get off here. And thank you very much.”
“Thank you very much,” Molly echoed surprisingly, and Gay’s eyes met the father’s in a quick smile of amusement.
He gently lifted the sleeping baby, and, holding Molly’s hand, made his way toward the door. Through the window ay saw them walking down the street, snowflakes falling lightly around them.
“Well!” she thought enviously, “that’s the kind of father to have.”
She remembered back to her own childhood Christmases and the way her brothers and sisters and she had gone down town to see Santa Claus. She couldn’t remember her mother or father ever going with them. they’d been rather large before they even knew of the treat that waited in every store – a Santa Claus with lollipops or a picture book or a little toy for every visitor. They’d make the rounds together after that, going home loaded down with cheap trinkets – the best part of their Christmas over. For her parents had been matter-of-fact people, not given to romancing of any sort.
“There’s too much work to be done,” her mother often said sternly, “and not enough money for foolishness!”
Tears stung Gay’s eyelids at the memory. She blinked them away impatiently. She must be awfully tired to start getting sentimental just because she had held a sleeping child for a few moments.
Sentiment had no place in her life – then, or now, or ever. She had made up her mind long ago to keep away from emotional entanglements of any sort. She knew what she wanted – a carefree life, with plenty of lovely clothes and sparkling, adult companionship. She had worked hard to get to a place in the business world where she could afford the things she admired. She had hoped to make the right friends, and now, this very Christmas, her plans were working out. Her employer’s wife, the elegant Mrs. J.B. Montgomery, had noticed her. She had invited Gay to her Christmas Eve party. After this, anything could happen.
As Gay left the bus, the Christmas lights were coming on in the houses along her street – gay, glittering lights that revealed holiday preparations in every home – except her own. Her apartment was dark and empty. Money spent on Christmas glitter could be put to better use. She hung up her coat, stroking the lovely fur. It had taken her a long time to pay for it, but it was worth the sacrifice to know that she looked the part she hoped to play. And some day there would be diamonds – even if she had to buy them for herself. Gay smiled wryly. Let Molly worry about Christmas stars, she’d spend her effort on diamonds every time. the sparkle lasted longer.
Gay found herself thinking about Molly and her tall father off and on all the next day, and as she rode home in the bus she felt an irresistible impulse to get off at the corner and walk down the street to see what kind of home they had. She probably would not recognize it, she thought with amused scorn at the idea, but she did leave the bus and walked along the sidewalk in the direction Molly and her father had taken.
The street was a very ordinary one, with snow-covered yards, carefully swept walks, small houses beginning to twinkle with Christmas lights in the early dusk. Halfway down the block, Gay caught her breath sharply. There it was!
It was a tiny house, very commonplace, but lighted up like a birthday cake. Colored globes hung in the windows and were festooned across the porch. Right at the edge of the porch was a single green evergreen tree, rather scrubby, but brave with strings of popcorn and cranberries. A crooked star glittered at the top. And there, beside the tree, putting on the finishing touches, stood Molly and her father.
“Hello!” called Gay. “Looks like Christmas!”
The man looked up from his work and came striding toward Gay, Molly tagging close at his heels.
“Well, if it isn’t the nice lady that helped us out yesterday on the bus,” he said grinning. “Yep, it is Christmas, nearly.”
“I made a star for myself like you said,” bragged Molly, pointing. “We’re trimming a tree for the birds, and maybe Santa Claus will leave something for me, too.”
“It’s a fine idea,” agreed Gay. “The birds will love the popcorn and cranberries.”
“There’s suet, too,” beamed Molly, and trotted back to her work.
Molly’s tall father leaned lazily on the gatepost.
“Do you live along here?” he asked. “I’m ashamed to say it, but I know scarcely any of my neighbors.”
Gay shook her head. She felt a little foolish now.
“I live down two blocks,” she explained, and added hastily, “I was just walking by.” That was almost true, anyway.
There wasn’t much more to say, so Gay moved on along the little street, turned the corner and hurried home.
She had a million little things to do to get ready for the big party at the Montgomerys’ – her hair to be done, a manicure, some special little items to buy. But she couldn’t concentrate on them. When she left the office early on Christmas Eve in order to take care of these personal things, her feet led her away from the beauty shop and cosmetic counter, straight to the most fabulous toy store in town.
She frowned as she entered. She had no business fooling around here. It was crowded and noisy, but Gay found herself looking at the eager children with new eyes – eyes that saw Molly and her small brother in every snow-suited youngster that pushed against her skirts.
At the doll counter she studied the display carefully until she found exactly what she wanted, a doll with a freckled face and two brown pigtails, as different from the rest of the dolls as Molly was different from other little girls. And then she hunted for the right Teddy-bear, small, and soft, and cuddly.
By the time she had finished, it was too late to keep her appointment at the beauty shop. Gay shrugged resignedly. Her hair would have to do – even for the Montgomerys’ affair.
She hurried home and wrapped the gifts carefully in bright oilcloth. It had begun to snow, and she didn’t want them to be damaged during the long, wet night. For she was going to slip over, as soon as it was dusk, and put the gifts under the birds’ tree in Molly’s yard. The children would find them on Christmas morning and be surprised. The nice mother and the tall father would be surprised, too. They would look at each other, each giving the other credit for a sweet Christmas gesture. And when they found out at last that neither was responsible, they’d have a mystery in the family, a mystery that would bind them closer as the years went on and each returning Christmas would set them wondering about the unexpected, unexplained gifts on their tree.
Gay glanced at the clock. her new dress was laid out, glittering, on the bed. She’d have plenty of time to do her little errand and return before the Montgomery car called for her, as had been arranged.
She hurried through the light snow, her heart beating strangely.
“It’s fun, really, to sub for Santa,” she thought. “It makes me all shaky inside – shaky and twinkly, like that absurd star of Molly’s.” She giggled a little.
In front of the little house the tree glittered merrily through the falling snow. beside it, the big window framed a Christmas-card picture. The tall father was sitting beside the blazing logs in the fireplace. He held Molly, sleeper-clad, on one knee, and the little boy on the other. He was evidently telling them a story. Across the fireplace a low rocker sat, empty.
The nice little mother, Gay thought, must have just left it. She’d probably gone into the kitchen to make hot lemonade. Gay could imagine her coming through the door, a tray in her hand, the children reaching up eagerly.
Gay hung her gifts, putting them back among the branches so that passersby wouldn’t see them and be tempted to take them. Then she stepped closer to the big window and stared in. She had forgotten where she was, what she was doing. She was just a curious woman, eager to see another woman to see what she was like.
The father bent his cheek to Molly’s hair, unbraided now and falling loose over her shoulders. He sat there very, very still for a minute. Then he gently put Molly down on the settee beside hm, placed the sleepy baby by her, and went into the kitchen.
Gay’s throat grew taut. He would be going to help bring in the lemonade and cookies. Gay, shielded from the sight of anyone by the tree branches, decided to wait till they came back. Then she would go.
“Come out of there!” a voice called quietly.
Gay started, turned, and looked up into a face that was grim in the light from the window. She moved from the shelter of the branches.
“You!” cried Molly’s father unbelievingly. “What on earth?”
“I was playing Santa Claus,” Gay said in a small voice, and pointed to the bundles on the tree.
The man stood very still, looking at her.
Gay felt she should say something more.
“I saw you sitting there and you looked so – so – sweet,” she ended apologetically. “I just wanted to see Molly’s mother come out with the cookies and lemonade …”
The mouth which had started to smile, became grim again and his eyes were sad and dark. He spoke softly. “Molly’s mother,” he said, and his tone was a caress, “she won’t be coming. She’s gone …” His voice caught.
“I’m sorry!” Gay put her hand on his arm. “Dreadfully sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Of course you didn’t,” he said gently. “She died a year and a half ago, soon after Danny was born. This will be our second Christmas without her, and now the children are older, I’m trying to make it almost as good as she would have done. I can’t bear for them to miss a real home Christmas.”
Suddenly he shook his head, as if to shake the memory from his eyes, and he smiled at Gay.
“But my Aunt Edith, who has been helping me with the children, is making lemonade in the kitchen,” he said happily. “Won’t you come in and have some?”
“How did you know I was out here?” asked Gay.
The laugh rippled down over Gay, warming her. “There’s a mirror over the fireplace, if you’ll notice. And a face against the windowpane … I couldn’t be sure whether it was real and maybe the answer to my dream.”
Gay went in, a little embarrassed, but Molly jumped up and ran to her and the little boy opened a sleepy eye and smiled at her. She sat down and took him on her lap.
“Aunt Edith,” Molly’s father said to the little, gray-haired woman who came in carrying a tray, “This is …”
“Gay Gregg,” supplied Gay, quickly.
“This is my Aunt, Mrs. Norris, ‘Auntie,’ to all who love her,” said Molly’s father. “And I’m Pete Norris,” he added, as if just remembering that Gay didn’t know his name.
They drank the lemonade and ate the gingerbread cookies; hung the children’s stockings with a great deal of excitement; and got the children into bed. Gay had to untangle little Danny’s fingers form her hair as she put him into his crib. She straightened up, hating to leave him. So she stood there, looking at the rosy face on the pillow, seeing the damp, blond curls on his forehead.
When she turned to leave the room Pete was standing in the doorway.
“It’s dreadfully late,” she said. “I must hurry. I have an important engagement at nine.”
Pete looked at his watch and grinned.
“You can still make it if you rush,” he said. “Come on, I’ll walk you home.”
As they neared Gay’s house, she saw the Montgomery car drawn up at the curb.
“They’re waiting for me,” she said. “I shouldn’t have been late!”
Pete whistled. “Some chariot!” he said enviously.
Gay smiled ruefully. “It isn’t mine, of course. But I hope, maybe, some day …” She stopped suddenly. “Thanks, Pete, for bringing me home. I must skip.”
“Thank you, little Santa Claus,” Pete said softly, his big hands holding hers so she couldn’t rush away as she knew she ought to do.
“Not Santa Claus,” whispered Gay, feeling just a little bit sorry for herself, “just Cinderella.”
Pete looked at her closely.
“Well, Cindy,” he said, very, very gently, “when the coach turns into a pumpkin, call on old Pete. Tomorrow, on Christmas Day, he can offer kids, not coaches; stars, not diamonds.” He turned and walked swiftly down the street.
Gay went slowly to the waiting chauffeur. “I’ll be ready in a moment,” she said apologetically.
She started toward the steps slowly, thinking of stars and the sweet, expectant faces of children, thinking of toys and Christmas trees – and forgetting the glitter of diamonds.
She would go to the party, as she had promised – but tomorrow – tomorrow she would go back to spend Christmas with Molly and Danny and Pete! She had found that she preferred stars to diamonds, after all – even if the stars were homemade.